There are some things in life that people learn without ever having to experience them. For me, one of those things really should have been ‘do not sneak out of a second story bedroom window if you have a broken leg’.
In my defense, I’d never had any trouble with the window before. The peach tree in our neighbour’s backyard was broad and healthy and one of its thick, strong branches was within easy jumping distance from my room. I’d silently slid the window open, checked to be sure that I was in the poorly-disguised undercover policeman’s blind spot, and was halfway out before I realised that balancing on the sill might be a little difficult with my right foot and calf encased in plaster.
I gripped both sides of the window frame and balanced as well as I could on my left foot. I’d always been small for my age, looking closer to eleven than fourteen, so the jump wouldn’t require very much strength. The branch, barely visible in the fading light, seemed to wave in time to the gunfire and screaming wafting up from my parents’ movie downstairs.
I leapt, and smacked right into the branch. It was a jump I could normally make without thinking about it, but the broken leg had thrown me off; I smacked chest-first into solid wood and instinctively wrapped my arms around it to keep from falling. The pain rushed through my ribs all the way to my spine, then faded, lingering for an extra moment in the little scar just to the left of my breastbone that I always tried to ignore. Not that I’d be able to ignore it any more, after the accident.
No, not accident. After the attack.
The back porch light was on. Most people would take this to be an accident, but I knew it was my parents’ plausibly deniable polite concession to the undercover police officers we were all pretending not to notice. They needed a clear view of the back door to make sure I was staying in the house like a good little boy. The light clearly illuminated the word WITCH that somebody had spraypainted across the back of our house, but it didn’t reach me in the tree. After a few seconds of stillness in which I waited for someone to move or shout, I felt it was safe to continue.
Arms and knees around the branch, I slid along it over the fence bordering our yard and towards the trunk of the tree. Our neighbours were still awake; light was visible around the kitchen blinds. This wasn’t unusual. It wasn’t all that late.
Normally I’d just drop to the ground and go ring the doorbell, but there was the issue of the police. Something else gave me pause, too; the small wreath of holly and mistletoe hung on the back door. That hurt more than hitting the branch had. Contrary to myth, neither holly nor mistletoe had ever stopped me from entering a building – I wouldn’t be able to enter most shops or cafes if it did – but the Nebits weren’t to know that. They’d always made a point of not warding their doors, and the fact that they’d done so now… well. I couldn’t really blame them, could I?
I switched to another branch, one stretching towards the Nebits’ house. The window I was aiming for wasn’t all that far from my own; it seemed like an awful lot of work to reach it by treeclimbing. If we’d been on the ground floor, I’d almost be able to reach it from my own window.
I couldn’t quite reach it from the tree, though. Again, this was a jump I’d made dozens of times, but it had been hard enough jumping into the tree with a broken leg; even I wasn’t going to try to jump out of a tree at a closed window when I couldn’t even safely stand up. I could envision the result – me slamming face-first into the wall below the window, and the Nebits coming to investigate the noise and finding a broken, bleeding body under their peach tree. Not an ideal situation.
Instead, I plucked a peach from the tree and threw it at the window. A moment later, it opened.
Melissa was sihlouetted in her bedroom light, so I couldn’t see much more than the halo of brown hair she was in the process of brushing, but I knew she was glaring at me. Melissa has the kind of glare you can feel through lead walls. When she grows up and has kids, they’re going to be the most well-behaved children in the world.
“Kayden, what the hell?”
“Are you going to let me in or not?”
“You shouldn’t be here! You’re under house arrest!”
“I know, that’s why I’m in a tree. But it is Saturday.”
Apparently, Melissa couldn’t argue with this logic. She fetched the usual climbing rope from her closet and tossed one end to me. I tied it to the tree, slid my way over to the window, and climbed in.
“Are you alright?” Melissa asked, checking over my arms for scratches and bruises. I didn’t pull away; Melissa gets focused when she’s worried, and it’s generally best not to get in her way. There were dark shadows under her eyes, I noticed, and her normally rosy, freckled cheeks were pale; had she lost sleep over me?
I shrugged. “They discharged me, so nothing can be too wrong with me. It’s not the first fall I’ve taken.”
“You know what I meant.”
I shrugged again.
“We tried to visit you, you know. They had you in some kind of high security ward and Chelsea almost got caught trying to pickpocket a nurse’s keycard.”
I suppressed a chuckle. “Of course she did. She’s not here yet?”
“She was grounded after the keycard thing, so I don’t think she’ll be able to convince her mum to – ”
Just then, Melissa’s bedroom door opened. “Don’t tell my mum I’m here,” Chelsea said quietly. “I’m grounded.”
Melissa threw up her arms. “Did anyone in this neighbourhood not sneak out of their bedroom window today?”
“Um, you didn’t,” I pointed out.
“Neither did I,” Chelsea said. “I’m not an idiot. I used our bathroom window. First floor.”
“Well la-de-da, Miss Police-Aren’t-Watching-My-House,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Kayden, did you climb a tree in your pyjamas?” Chelsea asked.
I glanced down at myself. “Maybe.”
“You’ve lost a button.”
Chelsea, unlike Melissa and I, was not in her pyjamas. She was wearing a flannel shirt that I was pretty sure was mine. Despite being a year younger than me, we were exactly the same size, and more than once she’d joked about getting me a jaw-length blonde wig and herself a shorter brown one to see how long we could pretend to be each other before someone noticed. Said jokes were getting worryingly serious.
“It’s your turn to hide the tracker,” Chelsea reminded me.
Melissa glared at her. “That stupid tracker game created this mess, and you still expect him to play?” she snapped.
“That’s pretty insensitive, Chel,” I agreed. “Especially since I’ve already hidden it. You think the school roof was a clever hiding spot? Oh, man. You are in for a wake-up call.”
She frowned. “You’re bluffing,” she said. “You haven’t had a chance to hide anything. They took you straight home from the hospi – ” She put her face in her hands and groaned. “You found the tracker before you ended up in hospital. You had it with you. And the only other places you’ve been are your house, and a high security ward in the hospital. And you know better than to hide it in your house.”
I spread my hands. “Hey, the circumstances aren’t my fault. If you want to find it, might I suggest stealing a nurse’s keycard? Oh wait.”
“You’re both crazy,” Melissa said.
“That’s a weird way to pronounce ‘incredibly awesome’,” Chelsea said. “When does the cast come off?”
“In another week and a half.”
“Just in time for school holidays!”
“I’m suspended anyway, so it’s kind of a moot point.”
We fell silent. None of us wanted to talk about the next obvious point of conversation.
Eventually, Melissa asked, “What about after the school holidays?”
I shrugged. “They haven’t set a date for the trial or anything yet, so…”
“So you’ll probably get a super long holiday before you’re found innocent and everything goes back to normal!” Chelsea threw an arm over my shoulders. “I’m so jealous.”
I shrugged her off. “I’m not innocent. My victim – ”
“Victim!” Chelsea scoffed. “You know this is Matt Parker you’re talking about, right? If I’d been up there I’d have pushed him off myself, curse or no curse.”
“You’re innocent,” Melissa said. “You know the law. Accidental consequences of curses can’t be prosecuted, unless the carrier of the curse was knowledgably negligent.”
“Fourteen-year-olds shouldn’t use words like ‘negligent’,” Chelsea frowned. “You sound like my dad.”
Melissa ignored her. “You’ve had that curse stuck in your heart since before you could walk, and nobody could ever say you were negligent. It’s done absolutely nothing for fourteen years. No causing sickness, no turning things to gold, it doesn’t even sour milk. There was absolutely no way you could have predicted it to lash out here.”
“That’s the point,” I said. “I should have expected it to lash out, because I should always be expecting it to lash out. My control slipped, and now everyone knows I put that jerk in hospital. He nearly died, you know. I nearly killed him.”
“Your curse nearly killed him,” Melissa corrected.
“I would have nearly killed him if I got the chance,” Chelsea shrugged. “Don’t even need a curse. I would’ve just hit him.”
“Everyone knows that Matt’s injuries are more self-inflicted than anything,” Melissa added. “Nobody blames you for any of this.”
“Then why is there a wreath on your door?” I asked.
Melissa looked away. “My parents are idiots.”
“No, your parents are scared, and they’re right. Your family have known about my curse since I got it. Your parents never had a problem with it, or with me, until now. But now they finally see what it means, what it can do, and they want nothing to do with me. They think I could hurt you, and they’re right. I could kill both of you without warning. Doesn’t that bother you?”
The two girls stared at me, completely unimpressed. Chelsea rolled her eyes.
“Why would that bother us?” Melissa asked. “It’s not exactly new information.”
“You’ve always known about the curse, but now that it’s active and – ”
Melissa waved me silent. “Not the curse. I mean in general. We’re all capable of killing each other if we want. You don’t need a curse for that. Five minutes ago I threw you a rope to climb in my window; I could’ve untied my end and you could very easily have died. Does that bother you?”
“No, it isn’t. I’m not saying your curse doesn’t suck, I’m just saying it doesn’t make you a terrifying monster, and anybody who looks at you differently now that it’s attacked Matt is an idiot for not taking it seriously and getting over it years ago.”
“That’s easy for us to say,” Chelsea said, “but to be fair, people have been kind of freaking out. Your family and mine were the only ones around here who ever really knew about the curse. To everyone else, it kind of…” she shrugged.
“Looks like I lied to them about something really dangerous I was carrying around the neighbourhood?” I asked.
“… Kind of, yeah. But they’ll get over it.”
“What’s the internet look like? The police confiscated my phone and I haven’t been online since the whole thing happened.”
The girls exchanged a worried glance.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Mum turned our wi-fi off. I don’t think she wants me to see what people are saying.”
“You don’t want to see what people are saying,” Melissa said quickly.
“Don’t worry about it,” Chelsea said. “If anyone gives you trouble, point at them and babble nonsense until they run screaming.”
“Yeah, because that would help his court case,” Melissa said.
“Nobody can give me any trouble. I’m not supposed to leave the house. Actually, I should probably get back before Mum and Dad notice I’m missing.”
“Righto. Liss, do you have some rope?” Chelsea headed for the window.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Stringing a rope from the tree to your window. Or did you have another plan for getting back in with that?” She nudged my cast with her toe. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” She took a rope from Melissa, slipped easily out the window and within seconds was walking along the tree branch outside.
“I’ll never get how you two can do that,” Melissa remarked.
“It’s easy. It’s just one foot in front of the other. Until you slip and break a leg.”
“Yeah, I think I’ll stick to the ground like a normal person, thanks.”
Melissa chuckled and shoved me playfully. I grinned, trying to keep the mood light. Trying not to think about the future.
Whether I was found guilty of assault or not, I was dangerous, and now the whole street and the whole school knew it. There was no going back from that.
And I didn’t know what to do.